iPhone brings cinematography to masses

Latest model improves image, sound, records in high-def

As studios continue the transition from film to digital, the indie filmmaking community is going through a metamorphosis of its own.

The introduction of video recording options on Digital SLR cameras opened a lot of doors for budding auteurs on a budget, but advances to the camera quality of the latest iPhone could bring a flood of new offerings from people who haven’t previously been able to afford quality video equipment.

Apple put a heavy emphasis on the iPhone 4S camera, adding high-def 1080p recording capabilities (the iPhone 4 had 720p), updating the maximum aperture and improving the auto-white balance, while also offering image stabilization and temporal noise reduction. The result is a handheld video camera that shoots nearly as well as Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II at certain settings. And that’s already encouraging people to see what they can coax from the $200 device (not including two-year phone service contract).

“I foresee a lot more people experimenting with short film,” says Dmitry Kozko, CEO of OpenFilm, an online community for independent filmmakers whose advisory board includes actors James Caan, Robert Duvall and Scott Caan, along with director Mark Rydell. “I see it growing online, and I see a lot of festivals coming up that will cater to (the 4S), if only because of the ‘cool factor.’ ”

The 4S certainly holds a pricing advantage, but it’s handicapped in many ways when compared with DSLR recording devices. The aforementioned Canon camera performs much better in low-light situations. (The title sequence of “Saturday Night Live” is shot solely with a pair of Canon DSLRs, for instance.) And the iPhone is still incapable of shallow depth of field, due to its small sensors.

Still, that’s not stopping some filmmakers from testing out the 4S for shorts. Benjamin Dowie of South Australia’s Beanpole Prods. has shot an unnamed experimental short on the device, which has become a viral hit online.

Even before the improvements, the iPhone was becoming a tool of interest to filmmakers. South Korean director Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy”) shot the thriller “Paranmanjang” (Night Fishing) exclusively with an iPhone 4. The 30-minute movie later won the 2011 Golden Bear for short film in Berlin.

The cinematic potential of the iPhone has grown to the point where there’s a viable peripheral business geared to filmmakers. The Steadicam Smoothee has targeted iPhone shooters for the past two years, offering near professional level image stabilization. And the Owle Bubo incorporates a wide-angle and macro lens to enhance the phone’s default offerings.